Saturday, May 25, 2013

European food regulators make asses of themselves again.

Of course, it would be illegal to pass off one sort of meat as another, but this post is not about false labelling.

This time, the European Union wanted to ban olive oil jugs and dipping bowls from restaurant tables, replacing these traditional offerings with sealed, pre-packaged containers of oil.

Not surprisingly, this has caused some negative comment from restaurateurs, producers, food writers and some politicians, including the British Prime Minister, who made a painful word play, saying that this measure "Shouldn't even be on the table".

Apparently, the EU now says that the measure will be rescinded, but I suspect we have not heard the end of it, as major olive oil producers, including Italy, Greece, Spain and Portugal, supported the measure, and farmer lobby groups have vowed to fight on.

Odd spot:  if you want to read some more of the EU shenanigans, have a look at the definition of 'strawberry'.  I've read that bananas, cucumbers and Cornish Pasties have also had a troubled time in the regulations.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

TV chefs fail at basic hand hygiene

I have just watched famous TV chefs preparing demonstration dishes.  One worked in his kitchen, others in an outside setting.

In both cases, the chefs were handling raw meat with their bare hands and preparing salads and sauces.  At no point did the chefs wash their hands and of course, they were moving between raw meats, fresh vegetables and spices. 

Of most concern to me was the use of a towel.  Chefs often have a towel at their waist; they use it for wiping spills from plates prior to service.  On this occasion, the chef handled the raw meat and repeatedly wiped his hands on the towel.  The sauce was blended from fresh vegetables and was not cooked.  There were no hand washing facilities in the shot and the sauce vegetables were also handled with bare hands.  The potential for food poisoning is significant.

Now, perhaps the chefs really did wash their hands between handling raw meats and salads.  However, these are demonstrations for ordinary viewers.  They should be setting a better example and emphasising the necessity of hand washing.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Food Fraud

Food fraud is nothing new - it was mentioned in the UK in 1771 by Thomas Smollet and food adulteration was common in the Victorian era.

Food fraud usually takes the form of passing off inferior materials as more expensive products.  It can be as simple as adding chalk to flour, supplementation of milk powder with melamine or passing off a low value product as one of greater worth.  The latter often involves violation of trade marks or brand names.

Why do unscrupulous suppliers do this?  Simply put, it's greed.  If you can sell low value materials as high quality products, you can make a killing.  Sometimes this occurs literally, for example, the not uncommon adulteration of spirits with methanol, an industrial chemical, or the attempt to smooth wine by adding glycol.

When I first began teaching in a Bachelor of Food Technology degree, I was horrified to read a full-page advertisement in a glossy trade magazine:  "Why sell meat when you can sell water?"  The advertiser was selling sodium tripolyphosphate, a water binding agent that can be injected into meats including fish.  It makes the meat appear more succulent and acts as a preservative, but also increases the sale weight.

So this practice continues.  The most recent description comes from 

It appears that the authorities in China have been investigating many cases of food fraud and over 900 people have been arrested.  One example is the manufacture of fake mutton from fox, mink and rat by the addition of chemicals. The amounts involved are truly staggering (where do they find so many foxes?).  Presumably, the meat is comminuted, as cuts of rat are unlikely to be similar to mutton, though it might be a different matter with fox meat.  It would be particularly disturbing if the products were labelled "Product of New Zealand" - this is a prime example of "passing off".  It would not be the first time this sort of thing has happened.

Food fraud in any form is stealing.  The consumer is not getting what he or she is paying for.  The Chinese authorities are right to come down hard on the perpetrators, but it's an extremely difficult thing to stamp out because of the enormous rewards of getting away with it.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Veggies that glow in the dark?

You must have heard the old joke that one advantage of irradiated food is that you can find it during a power outage.

Unfortunately, this sort of misunderstanding about food irradiation is common.  The food doesn't become radioactive and it doesn't glow in the dark.  Appropriate use of irradiation can prevent sprouting in potatoes or can be used for disinfestation.

The subject has come to prominence again with the stated intention of the New Zealand government to permit the import from Australia of irradiated tomatoes and peppers.

Exposure of vegetables to low levels of ionising radiation kills insects, rendering the vegetables safe for importation to New Zealand without the need to use chemicals such as methyl bromide**. New Zealand agriculture could be severely affected if certain insect pests were able to enter and establish in the country.

What effect could this irradiation have on the nutritional quality of the food and the health of consumers?  There are some very minor changes in the food - levels of the vitamin thiamine are slightly reduced, but not sufficiently to result in thiamine deficiency (and there are other sources of thiamine besides imported tomatoes and peppers).  Indeed, the changes in food are so minor as to make it difficult to determine whether food has been irradiated or not. 

Opponents of irradiation claim that the minor changes that occur in the food show that the process should not be permitted.  However, they neglect the changes induced by other processing methods.  Who could argue that a canned peach is the same as a fresh one?  In fact, careful study shows that all the chemical changes produced by irradiation can also be detected when foods are processed by more conventional means.

Other arguments are that unscrupulous food manufacturers will use irradiation to defraud the consumer by covering up spoilage.  This is plain nonsense.  If spoiled bacon, for example, were irradiated at sufficiently high dosage, microbiological testing would give low or zero microbial counts.  But the bacon would still be spoiled and a taste test would show this. 

Irradiation is the most extensively studied form of food preservation, and the weight of expert opinion is that irradiated foods are safe for human consumption.

A number of years ago, a European supermarket put irradiated foods on the shelves alongside similar foods not treated.  The irradiated foods were labelled, so that there was no attempt to deceive the consumers.  However, consumers appeared to select the irradiated foods in preference for the non-irradiated.

The issue is not about safety, but about consumer perception.

**  Methyl bromide was formerly used extensively in many countries to disinfest a wide range of agricultural materials in many countries.  Unfortunately, it is also an ozone-depleting compound and was phased out in most countries between 1995 and 2005.